Florida shakes off rust to put Missouri away
Published: Friday, March 14, 2014 at 5:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 at 8:09 p.m.
ATLANTA — For a half, Florida looked like a team that had already collected what it came here to get.
Just minutes before the game, they had been presented the SEC regular-season trophy. Commissioner Mike Slive carried it to halfcourt looking like he might drop it at any moment, and the players were celebrated for their historic season.
It was the last thing they needed.
“I don’t want to question the SEC,” said senior center Patric Young. “It just felt weird to get a trophy before you play a game.”
The trophy presentation, which is done annually by the league at the tournament, was just one more outside distraction coach Billy Donovan was worried about. Last Saturday was this amazing day, almost perfect for his basketball program. Then there were the awards being announced during the week, those heavy pats on the back.
Donovan was so concerned he had his team practice in the O’Connell Center on Tuesday.
“We scrimmaged,” Donovan said. “We were awful. Awful.”
Donovan knew his team needed to reboot mentally more than physically. In fact, the Gators may have had too much time between games with a noon game last Saturday and a 1 p.m. game Friday.
And they looked rusty.
“There were a lot of things leading up to this game that set itself up for us not to play well,” Donovan said. “There’s an emotional battle that goes on when you go through what these guys have gone through. Now you take the next step.”
But before they could take that step, they had to take one backward. For a half, Florida was an average basketball team. They turned it over four times in the first seven possessions. They took some really bad shots, including an air-balled 3 by Kasey Hill. They went back to the old Gators, you know, the ones who couldn’t shoot free throws any better than your grandmother.
“We came out kind of slow, taking things for granted,” Casey Prather said. “We weren’t really moving the basketball around the right way.”
Fortunately for the Gators, defense travels even when offense needs some time to catch up.
And once the offense caught up, a scary game turned into a blowout.
“It starts with getting stops,” Scottie Wilbekin said. “If we score and they score, it won’t be a run. Especially when we can hit 3s, it gets us a little more separation. But the key is getting stops.”
Missouri only scored 20 points in the second half. Five of those came in the closing minutes after Florida emptied its bench. If there is a trend with this team (other than, oh, winning a lot of games in a row), it’s that it figures things out in the second half.
“I could just feel we weren’t ourselves,” Young said. “At halftime, we came in here and talked about it and then we went back to being ourselves.”
There was one play in the second half that illustrated so many things about this team. It showed how smart these guys are and how hard they play and how they understand the value of defense and why Wilbekin was the SEC’s player of the year.
“He did what he did,” Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson said. “Player of the year in the conference and he played well.”
If you saw the play, it probably brought you off the edge of your couch or made your cubicle mate ask you to pipe down.
Florida led by only two points, and we were already eight minutes into the second half. Hill found Will Yeguete on a nifty pass for an easy basket. Nobody was thinking this would be the start of the game-breaking run at the time.
But it was. On the ensuing inbounds play, Wilbekin knocked the ball loose, saved it back inbounds to Yeguete and raced to the corner. Yeguete found him and Wilbekin drained a wide-open 3. Minutes later, he capped the 12-0 run with another one.
“The referee’s count was counting down so I knew that (Jabari) Brown was going to try to make a break for the ball, Wilbekin said. “I was able to get there before him and save it to Will.”
And like Wilbekin said, that most significant number in that run was the zero.
These guys get that. Now, about those slow starts.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.